- Directed by: Christopher Nolan
- Starring: Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr.
- Drama/Biopic| R | 3 hr
By Reed Ripley
Nothing screams summer at the movies like a three-hour period drama featuring scientists, professors, and politicians talking seriously to one another, right? Yet that’s exactly what Oppenheimer delivered, and it did so with superb spectacle and without compromise.
Honestly, everything through the first two hours that culminates in the Trinity test (the 1945 proof-of-concept nuclear test in the New Mexico desert) is some of the best filmmaking of the century. It’s absolutely gripping, and it’s thanks to Christopher Nolan’s script. It’s certainly the best he’s written, and it feels like everything he’s done before has led up to it.
Famously (or infamously, depending on your Nolan appetite), Nolan loves to mess with time, and Oppenheimer is no different. It’s not gimmicky, though, and it leans into the fact that its subject matter is one of the most important and well-known stories in world history (spoiler alert, they drop the bomb). Because everyone already knows the ending, Nolan dispensed with unnecessary exposition and immediately dived into a back and forth between the bomb’s consequences, the bomb’s construction, and Oppenheimer’s wending path through both. The easy version of this story follows a linear, temporal path through Oppenheimer’s education, scholarly pursuits, and tortured political career, but that’s not nearly as interesting as Nolan’s chosen path.
The visuals add even more depth to the script, and not exactly in the way you’d expect. Of course, the Trinity test itself is a marvel, but it’s the vivid illustrations that build up to the test that allow the sum of the parts to be greater than the whole. The film is well-shot, but specifically, there are beautiful cutaway depictions of how Oppenheimer sees nuclear theory in his mind—it’s not merely scratches of white chalk on a blackboard, but instead brilliant flashes of light and color that smash violently together in blinding kaleidoscope of rendered science.
Tying it all together are the performances, of which there are too many great ones to single out. However, I’ll highlight a couple that will make noise come award season. Cillian Murphy is perfect as Oppenheimer—undeniably charismatic, but always at arms-length, and eminently able to serve as the film’s anchor. Delightfully, Robert Downey Jr. gives a multi-faceted performance that turns in a way that really makes the narrative tick. Also, a quick shoutout to Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, who absolutely made the most out of what the filmmakers gave them.
So, why isn’t Oppenheimer a five-star film? It all comes down to its final third, which drastically shifts the tone to a more ruminating missive on the fallout of Oppenheimer’s horrible creation. It’s odd though—this final act might actually be the part of the film that ages the best. In the moment, it’s such a drop-off from the Trinity test’s high tension crescendo that it’s impossible not to feel deflated. However, it’s also a fascinating and penetrating character study about how a master creator grapples with their creation’s release into the world.
There’s only a handful of directors out there that can pull off original blockbuster dramas like Nolan. Even then, he’s arguably the best at pushing the pure theatrical experience past its accepted bounds. Oppenheimer is one of those films that people will remember seeing in the theater, and those don’t come around as often as they should.